My newest book, The Bear’s Garden was inspired by the real-life Brooklyn Bear’s Community Garden in my former neighborhood in New York City. The name always puzzled me—I mean, we didn’t have bears wandering around Brooklyn last I checked!
Come to find out, the garden was named for a teddy bear that was found in the weeds when the workers began to create a garden in the abandoned lot. Of course, immediately I started thinking of that little bear. How did he get there? Did he belong to anyone? Was he placed there on purpose?
The Bear’s Garden is my imaginative story about how the teddy bear came to be in those weeds.
While the real-life story was the main inspiration, I turned to many other picture books, as well. I always seek out mentor texts to assist in writing my own. It’s an essential part of my process to see what is already published and explore how my book can stand apart.
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown is perhaps the most known picture book about an urban community garden. I, of course, started there. My story would be a similar community beautification project, but I had a little stuffed bear to include in the effort.
Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael Lopez is based on a true story from my current city of San Diego, California. It is a fictionalized account like The Bear’s Garden. In it a young girl dreams of color in the drab city and assists a muralist in transforming the walls of her neighborhood into vibrant works of art. Two aspects of this story stood out to me: the young female who led the effort and the way the community worked together.
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small is about a young girl who moves to the gray city and gradually transforms her rooftop into a bursting garden. I loved this idea of transformation, but as a city girl, I was starting to take offense at the stance that the city is ugly and colorless. The girl in my story would find beauty everywhere: in an oil-slicked puddle, the pop of color from a pavement-defying weed, or graffiti-ed walls.
Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Sydney Smith is a wordless picture book. I loved it’s very observant young girl who finds beauty in the wildflowers growing through the cracks in the sidewalk. However, I was a bit appalled that she picked the flowers! I knew my protagonist would notice small things that others miss, but that in a true respect for beauty, would help cultivate it into something that could be enjoyed not killed.
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold is a beautiful love letter to life in the city. Most of the books I found were about beautifying a dull, gray city, I wanted to have my book be a celebration of urban life. It would be a character, maybe in need of help, but wonderful in its own right.
Lastly, I struggled with the ending of The Bear’s Garden. My words were falling short. I felt the best way to show the growth of the garden and the building of community was through visuals. So, inspired by my favorite ending of any picture book ever—Me Jane by Patrick McDonnell—I decided to keep the text super sparse and allow the illustration to complete the beautiful journey. I wanted those last two page turns to be reflective and powerful. Alison Oliver delivered quite nicely.
The Bear’s Garden is sprouting up on bookshelves everywhere this week. I hope maybe its story will plant a seed for your own.
Marcie is giving away a signed copy of The Bear's Garden to one lucky winner! To be eligible for prizes throughout the challenge, you must be registered by March 2, comment on each post, consistently read mentor texts, and enter the Rafflecopter drawing at the conclusion of ReFoReMo.
Marcie is the award-winning picture book author of Penguinaut! (illustrated by Emma Yarlett) and Love, Triangle (illustrated by Bob Shea), as well as the Super Happy Party Bears chapter book series. She teaches Writing Children’s Picture Books for the University of California at San Diego both online and on campus, and runs her own Study Hall conducting a month-long online critique group dedicated to the crafting picture books. Find out more about how you can study with Marcie at thisismarciecolleen.com and @MarcieColleen1